Today, I am finally a man.
Movies like Barbarella are a rite of passage for film enthusiasts. They’re more than famous, they’re in-famous. Quality is beyond consideration. Good or bad, they have to be seen, believed and passed on to future generations like the family skin bin. Today I finally got my turn, and despite the unpleasant aroma of sloppy seconds, I found the experience as life-altering – not to mention mind-altering – as those who came before me.
Barbarella features a young, impossibly attractive Jane Fonda in a series of pulp sci-fi costumes designed to remind you that she is young, impossibly attractive and can be convinced to do just about anything. She lives in a future where sex has been reduced to pill-popping and Conehead-style meditation, and discovers – repeatedly – the pleasures of the human (and alien and robotic) flesh over the course of the film, betwixt shooting robots, fighting off man-eating dolls and dog sledding with a terrestrial manta ray. But after 44 years, is there anything new to say about Roger Vadim’s kinky experiment in pulp tawdriness?
My first experience with Barbarella opened with an anti-gravity credits sequence in which Fonda, in a bulky gender-neutral space suit, gradually strips for the camera in a dream-like daze. She dwells inside a spacecraft with ugly brown shag carpet covering the floors and walls alike. The President of Earth calls her on the video phone, saying nothing of her complete nudity, and sends her on a mission to find a mad scientist named Durand Durand, who is building the universe’s first superweapon in generations. Polite society in Barbarella thinks nothing of casual sexuality and has done away with violence of all kinds. Yup, it was the 1960s, all right.
Barbarella crash lands on Tau Ceti, a planet full of culture shocks for the innocent hero. An impossibly hairy child-wrangler saves her from a hoard of homicidal children and requests, in exchange, sexy-sex. Though amenable, Barbarella is shocked to discover that he means actual physical intercourse. But she’s willing to try anything once, and the human throw rug falls on top of her to indoctrinate her into the ways of the world. Thus begins a long cycle of casual sexual flings with angels, rebel leaders and, at one point, a torture device that gives you orgasms to death. Barbarella is such a sexual dynamo that she overloads the machine, looking somewhat disappointed at the development.
The actual ins-and-outs of the plot – as opposed to the old fashioned ins-and-outs of the intercourse – are quite simple. Tau Ceti is ruled by a dictator whose evils are legendary, and who wants Durand Durand’s positronic ray for obvious purposes. Barbarella flits about from one fetish outfit and implausible situation to the next in order to find the mysterious scientist and save the universe. The only depths plumbed, storywise, are in the film’s bountiful subtext. The capitol city of Tau Ceti is built on an amorphous, Lovecraftian entity that powers the civilization in exchange for the bad vibes of its inhabitants. Social order comes at the cost of corruption and decency, but the sexual deviancy spawned by such a culture is undeniably appealing. Barbarella exits the film with her faith in non-traditional social models unfettered, but her physical horizons broadened. Complex? Not really, but at least it feels a little even-handed.
There is a theory, an inaccurate one, that states that Barbarella is a “bad” movie. While traditional narrative structure and conventional sanity are nowhere to be found, the freewheeling storyline and preoccupation with playful kinkiness doesn’t distract from the point. It’s actually the entire point. Barbarella is an alluring head trip with a smattering of symbolism and a truckload of appealing weirdness. It seems like it's meant to be enjoyed in a calm daze, presumably under the heavy influence of something-or-other, and accepted as an alternate world. Perhaps the subconscious desires of famed filmmaker Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman) are being laid bare, but he made his entire career out of bringing his peculiar and occasionally progressive predilections public. Maybe he was just tired of his films making a modicum of sense. Barbarella is the cinematic equivalent of Vadim doodling big-boobed space ladies in his high school notebook, and by sheer chance he happens to be a rather talented artist to boot.
One thing’s for sure: Barbarella raises questions that a special edition Blu-ray release could devote hours and hours to. What were they thinking, and what do they think now? The answers are out there – thank you, internet – but they’re not in here. Although Barbarella has been released in a splendidly colorful and rather detailed high-definition presentation, it’s sole special feature, the theatrical trailer, does nothing to expand on the film’s strange history and unusual thought processes. At least the movie is intact, and as tawdry as you could hope for. For fans both new and old, Barbarella deserves its place in the weirdo cinematic canon. Give it an awkward, leering, hazy look.